Thursday, March 30, 2017

To Whom Shall We Go?


"So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."  (2 Corinthians 4:18)

NOAH LIVES

My son held it out to show me as he was heading to school yesterday morning. 
Still in the fog of losing a friend to a fast and brutal battle with cancer, my senior held out a patch given to him this week. It read, "NOAH LIVES"

"Do you believe that, Z?  That Noah really lives?"

"I do." he said.  

"Then that changes everything about how you walk forward through this grief."

All of the future planning and joyous yearnings for "what's next" that accompany senior year of high school halted in December when a fellow senior was diagnosed with incurable cancer and given only a short time to live.  Suddenly it was okay if time stood still on all of their future plans. It became hard to look too far ahead when that too far ahead might outlive a friend. But time never stands still and the short days of winter turned to blossoming days of spring and the senior class and our school faced a loss last week that I'm not sure anyone was prepared to handle. 

"What good can come from this?"  In his anger, his frustration that God didn't heal on this earth, his grief, my son asked that.  "What good?" I fumbled around. Gave some answers of the good I'd already seen.  I offered some verses of hope straight from God's word...verses I know he's memorized...I could tell he had long tuned me out. He really didn't want me to answer. Sometimes I don't recognize moments when I should just BE QUIET. 

A friend texted, "The truth is, we live in a deeply fractured world, and we don't always have a choice about being broken. But we do have a choice about where we let our brokenness lead us..." (Different by Sally and Nathan Clarkson).   

Questions. Fears. Doubts. Anger. Confusion.  Hope?
Yes, hope.
My son, his senior class, our entire school, and much of our community are grieving the death of this young man as we come face to face with our own theology on suffering and death.     
All sorts of thoughts and emotions. 
Hard questions being asked...
Maybe more unsettling are the hard questions not being asked...the unspoken...
The unspoken thoughts left to their own wandering can lead to some very dark places. 
Where will this brokenness lead us?
I'm trying to carefully urge my son forward to ask the hard questions (with your Bible open), feel this pain (but please receive the comfort of people around you), do not ignore the doubts (God is much bigger than any of those), cry while you walk if you have to (or cry while you sit), be still (physically and mentally still), go for a run (but take your phone and you better answer it if I call you), talk with your friends (but focus on TRUTH), speak with our pastor (he's a wise one to guide), listen to Noah's favorite song and remember him (laugh at some of those ridiculous memories) and even wrestle with the Lord if you must...
But DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK...
Do all of this at the foot of the cross because that is the only place you will find any peace.

"On hearing it, many of his disciples said, 'This is hard teaching. Who can accept it?'...From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed Him."  In John 6, Jesus teaches some hard things that caused many of the disciples to turn their backs and walk away.  

Hard teaching.
Too hard for some of the disciples to understand and too difficult for some to accept, so they turned and walked away. 
It just was too much. 

Jesus asked the Twelve, "You do not want to leave too, do you?"

Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."  (John 6:68) 

That's where I pray this grief takes these young students...takes all of us... 
Wrestle. Ask questions. Take your thoughts before the Lord.
Ask Him for belief as doubts surface.
But do not harden your heart to His voice right now. 
Where will you go if you don't go to the Lord?  Who else holds the answer to eternal life?
It may be hard and incredibly painful, we might not understand, and the good might seem difficult to find, but where else can we go, Lord?  You have the words to eternal life.
There's no other safe place to fall if not at the feet of the one who holds all the answers.
There are no answers apart from Him.   

Do not turn your back and wrestle on your own. There's will be no peace in human reasoning. 
Do not cast aside God's word.  There will be no hope without it. 
Do not harden your hearts.  There will be beauty from ashes for those who soften their hearts to grow through this.   

Where will this brokenness lead us?

"So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."  (2 Corinthians 4:18)

We grieve with hope.   
Noah's funeral---the witness of his life and his amazing family---gave testimony to a choice to follow Christ and secure his eternity in the presence of our Heavenly Father. Those who knew him best gave testimony to his faith.  So, we say with confidence that Noah lives. 

That changes EVERYTHING about how you walk forward in grief.

Praise be to the Lord who holds the words to eternal life!! 
NOAH LIVES!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Fighting Fear

"For God did NOT give us a spirit of FEAR, but a spirit of power and love and of self-control."
(2 Timothy 1:7)

Then why do I struggle so much with fear?   

I can't remember if there was a time in my life I would have used the word "brave" to describe myself.  Probably not.  But I don't think I would have ever described myself as fearful.  Then I grew up, got married, had kids, and something about loving my people so fiercely and being responsible for little ones revealed a capacity for fear that I didn't know existed. 

There's a line from the movie Avengers that comes when Captain America tells Bruce Banner, "Now would be a really good time to get angry."  Bruce Banner turns around and says, "That's my secret, Captain.  I'm always angry." 

I used that line with my husband not too long after I saw that movie for the first time.  Fear...I told him...that's my secretI'm always walking along the edge of fear.  It's my default emotion in times of great pressure, stressful situations, big decisions, disappointment, confrontation, basically anything uncomfortable, I tend towards fear.           

My mom had a seemingly normal broken rib last week (painful and slightly inconvenient for her well-planned schedule) from a fall through a hole in their floor due to a remodel.  Several days after the break, labored breathing led to a second ER visit where a scan showed her chest cavity filling with blood from an artery somewhere around that broken rib.  Normally those small arteries clot on their own, but as they watched the chest tube continue to fill with blood the doctor made the call that surgery needed to be done quickly. She needed a blood transfusion and they needed to find and tie off the artery before she lost too much more blood.  The cardiothoracic surgeon, one of the best in the state, had never had to go to surgery because one rib (ONE RIB) had caused such chaos.  My brother and dad, both anesthesiologists, had never once been in a surgery like this for one rib.  Normally such a surgery would be related to several broken ribs and other internal injuries.  So much for having the comfort of the family doctors~~they were as baffled as anyone why this one little rib was wreaking such havoc in her body.     

Here comes the fear...
I texted my husband with the update..."I'm afraid"...
It takes all my energy to go into battle against it while I wait...

Through years of recognizing my tendency to be flooded with fear in the waiting, I've realized that I'm completely too weak to fight the battle of fear on my own.  I have a pile of 3x5 cards with handwritten verses that help me remember TRUTH when everything in me is wanting to cave in to fear.  I pull out my fear verse cards and I recite...and I don't really hear the verses at first, nor do I fix my mind on them at first, but I still recite. There's power in the Word of God.  It's all I know to do that works.  Only God's Word soothes...and even that is a fight because in those moments when I'm most afraid, I tend to actually fear Him (not the Godly fear that leads us to bow and worship), but the fear that causes us to tremble at what He might ask us to walk through.  So, I have to pull out my verses to remind myself of who He is and what He promises.  Over and over again I recite (sometimes out-loud, sometimes in my mind) because I'm an incredibly slow learner and it takes me a while to hear what He has to say to me. I have to remind Him (as if He's not perfectly aware) I'm much too weak for this, Lord.  His word reminds me that YEP I AM WEAK, but that's okay because HE IS STRONG. (2 Corinthians 12:10)   

Psalm 16:8 "I have set the Lord always before me.  Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken."   
(Tell that to my quivering stomach.)

Psalm 46:10 "BE STILL AND KNOW THAT I AM GOD." 
(Shaking Soul, BE STILL, and KNOW that I AM GOD.)

Isaiah 26:3-4 "You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is kept on thee because he trusts in thee." 
(I trust you, Lord.  I trust you, Lord. I trust you, Lord. Ummm, Lord?  Waiting on that peace here.)

John 14:27 "Peace I leave you, my peace I give you; I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your heart be troubled; do not be afraid."     
(Lord, but I'm so afraid.)

Psalm 62:1-3 "My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from Him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation--He is my fortress, I will never be shaken."  Repeat as a command to my soul.   "Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation--He is my fortress, I will never be shaken." 

Isaiah 43:1-2 "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; YOU ARE MINE.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze."

Isaiah 41:10 "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." 

My boys' beloved choir teacher recently held a concert where all of her choirs sang beautiful hymns.  She shared that as a young girl she used to memorize the hymns sung in her church so she wouldn't have to use the hymnal.  In later years, she told us that the words to those hymns comforted her as she walked through difficult times in her life.  She let us in on her motivation for picking these hymns, "These kids don't know that in memorizing these hymns, I've given them an arsenal to use later in life when things get tough."  

An Arsenal.  
Preparation for battle. 
Verse cards are that for me...an arsenal to combat the lies of the enemy...to combat my weakness to fall prey to fear.
  
I know the exact chain of events where I realized how powerless I am in moments when life is shaken.  I've told the story before because it was eye-opening to see that I AM NOT STRONG and but by God's grace will I completely fall apart in tragedy.   

Years ago, we had just moved to Tucson and my boys were ages 1 and 3.  I remember my husband leaving to fly one day and mentioning that the flight was going to be a challenge so could I pray for him.  He'd been a military pilot several years by this point so I didn't fret every time he was in the air like I did early in his pilot training.  He was a flight lead and a pretty okay pilot.  He was leading a friend of ours that day on a flight; this friend had much more experience than my husband so I probably didn't think anything about it. I can't even remember if I prayed for him.
But I do remember the call later that evening. 

"It's me.  I'm okay.  It was terrible.  My wingman bailed.  I had to emergency land. They are bringing me back---I'll be to the area in a couple hours." 
That was it.  He was just gone and I had no idea what in the world he was talking about.  My little guys were naked ready for a bath and so I washed them quickly in the water as I thought about his phone call.  Very unsettling.  My phone started ringing again just as I got them out of the tub. 

"Our pilots are all accounted for."  That was it.  I think it was the squadron commander's wife who called.  I was still so confused.  I said something to her like "Preston said his wingman bailed. Is something going on?"  She paused, "All our pilots are accounted for."   The second time she said it I knew what this was. I'd heard of it from other wives...been told the protocol at every base we had been stationed...but I'd never been in a squadron that had to utilize its emergency phone procedure.  It meant a plane had gone down and a call meant your pilot was safe.  The fear closed in quickly.   
Someone else called.
"Turn on the tv."

I only heard bits and pieces.
Collision.
Two A-10's.
One pilot found.
Searching for the other pilot. 

My husband's call repeated in my mind. 
"It was terrible." (Collision)
"I'm okay." (One Pilot Found.)
"My wingman bailed." (Searching for the other pilot).
"I'll be back in a couple hours." (But what has happened and who will you be after this?)

It didn't occur to me that I had received a call that said all our pilots are accounted for. It didn't cross my mind that there were two other A-10 squadrons on our base. My husband said "terrible", "wingman bailed," and "I'm okay" in one quick burst.  I knew the story on the news had to involve him which meant our good friend had to be the one missing.  In that moment, I became absolutely paralyzed with fear.  From the top of my head to the tips of my toes, every cell in my body participated in the anxiety. Thinking of my husband and what he must have been through in the last hours...aching at the thought of the missing pilot and his family (our dear friends also with small children)...wondering what happens now (was it his fault?)...paralyzed I sat on the floor as my naked boys ran around and played and tried to get my attention (and maybe even peed all over the carpet)...I sat staring at the TV begging God for news that they had found the pilot alive.  I loved the Lord, believed His good in my life, studied the Bible, and memorized scripture, but the fear that overtook me in that moment stunned me. 
Where was my faith as I sat there waiting?  I felt it abandoned me.   

The phone rang a little later. 
"Do you know Preston is okay?" 
Our friend...the friend I thought was the missing pilot...his voice echoed through the phone telling me my husband was okay.  I was still so confused. 
"What?  What?  What is going on?  I know he's okay.  What about you?  He called me and told me the flight was terrible.  His wingman (I thought YOU) bailed.  They are bringing him back from somewhere a couple hours away because he had to emergency land."

Our friend's voice again, steady, "I just realized you might think we were involved.  He doesn't even know what's going on back here so that's why he wasn't more clear in what he said.  I did bail out of the flight...BEFORE TAKEOFF...because my jet broke.  I didn't even get airborne.  Preston's jet had some issues when he was flying and he had to emergency land at this other airfield because it wasn't safe to fly back to Tucson.  Someone from that airfield is driving him back.   It WAS a terrible flight.  But not a terrible flight in light of what's going on back here.  There has been a crash and they are searching for one pilot, but all the pilots in our squadron are accounted for. " 

I got off the phone and sobbed (and sobbed and sobbed.)  I cried in thankfulness that my husband was okay and that our friend was fine and that my husband's cryptic phone call had absolutely nothing to do with what I was watching on the news.  I bawled for the wife and mama who hadn't gotten a call and was watching the news while her world blew into a thousand little pieces as they searched for her husband...I cried for the other pilot, the one found.  For a moment in time I had thought I belonged to the surviving pilot and I had tasted one tiny drop of the hard road that guy was going to walk as the survivor.   

Much too late that night, when someone brought him back into town, I got a chance to hang on to my husband while he profusely apologized for his poor choice of words in describing his flight.  I explained to him my response as I had waited for the news...how I was engulfed in paralyzing fear...how I couldn't even focus on our naked children ("Are they still naked?" he asked. "I don't know," I said. "I think they had fruit snacks for dinner.").  I hung my head as I explained that I always envisioned myself being so strong when crisis hit...that I thought I would be this pillar of great trust in the Lord whenever life around me started shaking...but instead, there I sat, so afraid.

I think all of us tend toward some sort of sinful exaggeration of emotion when left to our own strength.  We can be overwhelmed by our anger, depression, despair, self-pity, FEAR, dependency, bitterness, or any other spirit that sets itself against the truth of God 's Word.  I'm learning how important it is to prepare. Arm your arsenal with truth. It's hard to build a faith and fight the battle when the raging winds are howling and the fire seems to be closing in. Spend the calm days in God's word building up faith so when the storm hits that faith can be the lifeline to which we cling. 

As I got the call that my mom's surgery was successful and they had found and cauterized the leaking artery, I was once again struck by the power that fear can have in my life.  I was reminded of how enslaving my own fear can be. I actually fear my ability to fear like an unbeliever (see, I'm always afraid of something.) 

"Will I ever conquer the tendency to jump straight into overwhelming fear?"  I don't know, but I do know every time I struggle through it, there is an opportunity to lean into God's word and practice believing itMy fear reminds me of how weak I am and also reminds me of His faithfulness in pushing me toward a more trusting faith that believes His good no matter what assignment He gives me.     

Lord, help me to have the discipline to build my faith before the storm hits and help me to arm myself for battle before the first arrow flies. Help my unbelief that leads me down that road of fear.

"Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."   (Psalm 73:25-26)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Happy 2017

Happy 2017!  It’s THAT year…the year on Zach’s letter jacket---I just knew Jesus would come back before now (there’s still time!)  You see, we are almost professionals at adding babies to the family…but letting one go?   Not sure how to do that.  We are only Day 20 of this year and 2017 already seems uncomfortable.  Not "bad" uncomfortable just "cracking my illusion of control" uncomfortable. Two kids enrolled in public school as of two weeks ago (don’t ask), a three-year old who is NOT potty training herself (I thought she was smarter than this), Preston serving the role as interim head football coach (plenty of time??), three college choices still on the table (why won’t he just go where I tell him?), and a bulging schedule that works perfectly for two children (which four kids should we give away?) Is it too shallow to pray that God teaches us to be comfortable  in our uncomfortable?
 
 
 
 
     "Shall we accept the good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10). Layered…our conversations, our emotions, our schedules.  Our giggles and tears intertwine...our fears and courage waver…our triumphs and failures rise and fall. It’s all there held tenderly within the boundaries of 2016.  Our year held unique highs and lows…a new permit driver (less cautious than the firstborn), a breathtaking homeschool ballet performance, state quarterfinals in football, a totaled mustang, several ER visits (we ER hop now to avoid investigation), and three hundred (million) soccer games.  We had a Royals foul ball “caught” by one happy 6-year old, church camp, plenty of lake weekends, Camp ThompConnell, an ambulance ride, sweet moments mentoring young girls, a week with family at Disney World, a promotion (followed by the grief and contentment of turning it down), and 365 days worth of more. In October, God graciously allowed us to make it to Georgia in time to be with Preston’s mom, Mama V, before she surprisingly passed away. No one was prepared and while her family sat planning an unexpected funeral, the sweet noise of her grandchildren playing baseball outside filled the grieving room. Life. We celebrated her life (and wept at our loss of her) in Georgia one day and the very next day celebrated a conference championship win with our football team. Odd.  Life lived in the midst of sorrow…just as she would have wanted. Celebrations and tears; mourning and then the relief of morning; and then all those in-betweens where we are building our faith to accept whatever the Lord brings…the good and the adversity.    
  
 
Zach, the energetic senior, is a college t-shirt hoarder and has fully enjoyed a year of college visits. (Now decide already!) If Hogwarts really existed, that would be his first choice. Knowing his love for children and the sciences, he envisions his future job will probably be something combining the two (he says pediatric oncologist or fudge-maker.) He enjoyed a senior mission trip this summer working with underprivileged kids, a week at Boys State studying government (he absolutely does NOT want to be a politician), and an amazing football season making All-State receiver with over 1500 yards. What a joy it has been to watch him mature in the Lord and even if he’s 10 hours away next year (BE STILL MY HEART), we will always (be able to find him with FIND MY IPHONE-what?)  be thankful that God picked him to be our firstborn.
 
Josh—the studious sophomore, generally works through his homework before he does his fun. He loves structure and thrives when he knows exactly what’s required of him (“tell me the rules.”) He does every sport ALL OUT. This year brought him an assortment of different sports braces and wraps (and his own bottle of Advil) collected through several frustrating injuries. A high ankle sprain plagued the early part of his football season and Preston encouraged him saying “Be patient. Athletes get hurt.”  I encouraged him, “Slow down. You won’t get hurt if you don’t go full speed. Josh loves math, choir, and socializing. He still plays the piano for our youth worship band (thankfully we have one that practices music) and he uses his humor to lighten up our tense moments (“the doc can’t believe with these muscles I’m not on steroids”).  
 
Madelin, the artistic 7th grader, loves pointe shoes and soccer cleats.  We can’t decide if she’s a soccer player masquerading as a lovely dancer or the reverse.  When she asks to do some new activity, we say “NO!” because she loves every new thing she tries. She just got braces (her fingernails get a break!), and has coped with this change by perfecting ridiculously silly faces. She thinks Pinterest is straight from heaven and loves to create new things. She’s mastered the art of quietly blending in with the purpose of overhearing EVERY private conversation had in this home. She loves FINALLY being in youth group and helping me (she’s a baby hog) in the church nursery. Her persistence in her quest for an Instagram is impressive, but to her dismay, we still have enough energy to say no.
 
Savannah, the event-planning 4th grader, uses every emotion and event as an opportunity to celebrate (or “at least give me a cuddle night.”). Soccer gives her a chance to display her competiveness and ballet gives her a chance to practice some graceJ. She’s our hand-made gift giver and regularly hides notes for her brothers in their lunches. They repaid the favor with a lunchbox note on her first day of public school and you would have thought they bought her the world. Her awareness of other people is a gift and she loves to love others in tangible ways. Oh her sweet emotions…if we had a quarter for all the hurt feelings her college would be funded. 
            
Noah, the conversational 1st grader, might just be the quarterback in our family (if only he didn’t like baseball more!). His soccer coach nicknamed him the “Little General” because he loves directing people (the kid does have some good ideas).  He’s only been in public school for a week, but we assume he’ll be voted First Grade Class President by the end of the month. Outgoing Noah loves to lead people, loves the outdoors, loves baseball, and loves conversation.  He’s masterful at word usage (with passionate expression) so we see him as a future lawyer, politician, or game show host.  He loves going to school and told me he’s sorry he doesn’t miss me but he just forgets about me during the day.  
  
Hope, our delight, turned 3 on Christmas and she has no idea what it’s like to not be completely smothered in love. There’s always someone to entertain her, to dry her tears, to tickle her, to love on her. We might be either raising helpless or royalty. Actually, she really is quite independent and probably our biggest daredevil. Her trusting heart believes someone will always be there to catch her. She can carry on full conversations with adults and explain why she likes to potty in her pants and why she has coffee breath (“my mom lets me drink her coffee.”)  Her favorites are “chokers” (Jolly Ranchers), lip syncing to Trolls movie songs, anything pink, and dancing.  Each sibling has a sweet relationship with her--a special “fin, noggin, Dude”  handshake with Zach, chasing games with Josh, airplaning with Madelin, and playing, playing, playing with Savi and Noah.  
 
We are learning that uncomfortable is a gift…a good gift from the Lord. As Elisabeth Elliot writes, “Circumstances are an expression of God’s will…the secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.”   There’s sweet freedom in relinquishing the need to see what’s next. We don’t know how to do 2017, but God knows how to do it and He will give the grace and wisdom for the moment. Our prayer is to have a heart that says “It is well” to whatever comes from the Lord's hands this year.   We pray that for all of us that 2017 is full of all the richness of life.  
 
With Love,
The McConnells